Ben Abraham singing about singing

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Dot writes: among the various albums I’ve bought in the past couple of months, Ben Abraham’s Sirens is one that has been quietly growing on me. It’s not that I didn’t like it to start with – I did; it’s mellifluous and very easy to like – but that I have been getting to know the words, which are rather good, and appreciating more dimensions in the music.

I guess this would be classified as folk-pop. The core sound is acoustic guitar plus voice, with various other elements layered over the top (for example, piano, varieties of electric keyboard/organ, strings), and percussion is used delicately – there are drum sounds, but it’s never drum-heavy, and I hear finger clicks, claps and shakers. Most of the tracks have a greater or lesser degree of reverb so that one often gets a sense of a wide, resonant space. Within this resonance one can still hear pleasing details, such as, in “You and Me”, the little synth figure that starts in the left stereo channel and then after a few bars gets doubled in the right. It’s gentle, this record, and sweet, and Ben Abraham has a very warm, flexible voice. The overall effect is lush and, quite simply, lovely. You can wallow in it if you want.

However, this is an intelligent album, verbally as well as musically, and it’s worth thinking about, so I have been – though as usual with me I find it easier to think about the words than the music. Here’s one of the strands I’ve been finding in it: a recurrent interest in singing about singing. For instance, in “I Belong To You”, he starts “If I only knew the song / I’m supposed to sing / To bring you from the days to come / And sit you next to me” and later describes his “lonely melody” that has “only simple words / Even simpler chords / That’s all I have, you see / Until you’re here with me”. The song is his call to the unnamed You – a lover he maybe doesn’t even know yet, still in the future – and also an image of himself, not yet enriched and completed. “To Love Someone” presents song as a temporary refuge while looking for love: “Lately I’ve begun to find / That home is harder to define / I’ll take my dwelling for a time / Inside a lonely song / But to love someone, when you love someone / Well that’s where I belong.” In “Home” (actually, ideas of home are another recurrent theme), he’s singing to someone who’s gone abroad, apparently to New York and then Paris. He sings of how “the garden’s been waiting / and I have been waiting / to show you the things that we made”, but when this is echoed in the following verse it’s “the island is calling / and I have been calling / to show you the songs that we made”. Songs are like the fruits he has been tending, part of the haven he is guarding for whoever it is: “Won’t you come home?” And, of course, this very song is the song he made.

The most striking example of this self-reflexivity is “Speak”. It’s beautifully paced, starting very gently and building up, both in the layers of the music and in the melody (which gets higher as it gets more passionate) and the vocal performance. Here are the words in full. (He posted them on Facebook some years ago, but seems to have altered them slightly for the album recording.)

I didn’t hear you enter
But I know you have been circling my room
I listen for your footsteps
Close my eyes and wait for you to move
You’re hiding like a memory
Teasing like a girl I used to know
You’re tumbling, gambolling
Calling to the weakness in my soul
Telling me to speak

And in one reckless moment
You move a little too close to my ear
I grab a hold with both hands
And scramble to make sense of what I hear
I try to tie you down
With synonyms and sad piano sounds
For a moment you surrender
One moment we both stand on the same ground
And I begin to speak

And all at once you pull away
But I’m lost within your atmosphere
As quickly as you found me
I panic as you try to disappear
I reach out with my fingers
And try to pull the letters back in line
But your words spin out of order
And the pounding in my chest is out of time
And I just want to speak

This is about the strange externality of inspiration, the way an idea can be tantalisingly half-present, and the excitement and frustration of grasping at it, but in the context of an album largely of love songs – and, frankly, outside that context too – it’s also unmistakably erotic: it’s the muse as lover. You can read the metaphor both ways: the desire to write a song, the desire to speak in art, can also be an image of the desire to “stand on the same ground” and truly be at one with another person.

Self-reflexivity isn’t new or unique, and nor is eroticising artistic inspiration. This isn’t even the only example I can think of from recent albums by Australian singer-songwriters: Missy Higgins’ The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle springs to mind, in particular the final track, “Sweet Arms of A Tune”. But I think Ben Abraham does it really interestingly and well, and in a way that makes one conscious of the possibilities that arise within the constraints of that incredibly common form, the love song. Using this form is an opportunity to work out particular variations on the combination of words and music; lyrics can be written that are open enough to be adaptable to listeners’ own situations, when they need them to be, but that – when done well – have a ring of true observation in them. For Ben Abraham it also seems to be a vehicle for thinking about what it means to sing songs, what they can be for, how they are part and not part of the self that sings, how they might be tools in one’s life or alternatively a kind of substitute for other relationships. Because I’ve been reading about Chaucer recently I find myself making a connection with what Ardis Butterfield has to say about the legacy of the troubadours passed down to Chaucer:

Two of the perceptions about love language voiced by troubadour poets provoke an especially vivid response in later poets. One is that writing about love is a profound analogy for the creative process per se; another is that just as courtesy is a way of living as well as of writing, so love poetry is a brilliant means of expressing the ironies involved in trying to live as well as write at the same time.

– Ardis Butterfield, “Chaucer’s French Inheritance”, in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (C.U.P, 2003), pp. 20-36 at p. 29.

I’m not trying to say Ben Abraham is just like the troubadours. But they are writers in whom critics detect considerable subtlety and self-consciousness under apparent simplicity and directness, and I think that’s true of him too.

Should you want to buy Sirens you can get it from Bandcamp. I also recommend Ben Abraham’s blog, on which he’s started posting in instalments his account of making the album. [Update, April 2016: in the year since I wrote this post Ben Abraham has signed with Secretly Canadian, and his album is now available not from Bandcamp but from iTunes.]

P.S. If you’re wondering why this wasn’t in my Best of 2014 round-up, it’s because I bought it in 2015. But it was released in November.

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